WHEN Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post ruled the world of manners with white-gloved authority, etiquette involved fairly rigid rules. The right dinner fork, the correct introduction, the properly written thank-you note to a hostess - all played a part in sustaining an orderly social code. Moreover, in their era, social life was social life, a business transaction was a business transaction, and rarely the twain did meet.
Today, what would Miss Vanderbilt and Mrs. Post make of the latest attempt at corporate etiquette - thank-you cards and notes to customers? Consider a few recent examples:
A few days after I took my five-year-old car to the dealer for servicing, a plain white envelope arrived in the mail. It was addressed in turquoise ink with distinctly feminine flourishes. A party invitation, perhaps?
Hardly. A greeting card with a sleek red-yellow-and-blue star-burst design exclaimed, ``You've Made Our Day!'' The message inside read, ``Thank You! Customers like you are a pleasure! We appreciate your business and look forward to serving you again.'' The card contained no signature - just the business card of the service manager at the auto dealership.
It's good to know that my check for $346.74 made somebody's day, because spending that much money for car repairs has never been my idea of a great time. Still, sending a thank-you card that no one has even bothered to sign? Talk about impersonal!
Equally impersonal and even sillier is the card a friend received from his dentist reading: ``Congratulations! You've completed your root canal!'' The printed message concluded, ``It's been a pleasure to work with you.''
At least ``impersonal'' is not a charge anyone could levy against the hand-written notes retail clerks sometimes send to their customers. But even these can backfire. Once, when I returned a suit the day after buying it, the clerk's face fell, presumably at the thought of a lost commission. Then she said plaintively, ``I already wrote you a thank-you note,'' as if this somehow permanently sealed the transaction.
That disappointed clerk could probably commiserate with the saleswoman in a jewelry store who once told me, ``I usually write all my thank-yous to clients in the evening after work.'' She sounded for all the world like a bride with a stack of wedding gifts to acknowledge.
There is something touching about these earnest efforts to cultivate and keep customers in a competitive business climate. In an age of casual manners, when parents of the bride must enclose a stamped, self-addressed reply card along with the wedding invitation to encourage guests to RSVP, and in a world where rudeness sometimes seems in greater supply than civility, who can complain about service managers, dentists, and sales clerks who reaffirm basic courtesies, however awkward or ill-conceived their attempts might be? They serve as reassuring counterpoints to the tone set by such masters of insult as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, who have become national folk heroes of sorts as their books leap to the top of the bestseller lists.
Yet what will be next? Waiters who dash off a friendly line or two to thank customers for leaving an especially generous tip? Or meter maids who write ``Have a nice day'' at the bottom of the parking tickets they issue?
If only some of this courtesy and good will could be taught to drivers who keep one itchy foot on the accelerator, one impatient hand on the horn, ready to honk at anyone in front of them who fails to accelerate from a green light in a nanosecond. Better manners and the art of saying a simple ``Thank you'' could also be a useful lesson for the telemarketers who call at dinner time and, when given a firm but polite ``No,'' hang up in a huff.
So great is the need for better manners that some companies now offer business-etiquette seminars for employees who know how to cut a deal but not how to cut their meat. That need has also led to a book, ``Letitia Baldrige's New Complete Guide to Executive Manners,'' which Ms. Baldrige describes as her attempt to ``put humanity back into the business world.''
The new politeness may have the echoing blandness of a taped message. But given a choice between prefabricated politeness and the spontaneous rudeness all too typical of the road-warrior-'90s, who would not choose a little orchestrated courtesy? So a sincere ``Thank you, you're really great'' - or at least, pretty great - to all the people who have been paying the same compliment to everybody else.